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Too Much of Nothing 

Club owners say city isn't a help to creative new businesses

Fans of live music may wince when they hear it, but the most popular musical events in town are often held at places like Liquid Lounge, Mythos, Time Lounge and Aqua. Whether it's a guest DJ or just a house man, DJs spinning records keep a lot of people coming uptown, spending the evening having fun, and spiraling on the dance floor.

Just the kind of thing the city should be supporting and encouraging, right? According to Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class (see cover stories by Tara Servatius and Sam Boykin in this issue), one of the marks of a city that can attract the creative folks needed to grow a city in the 21st century is an active encouragement of a dynamic nightlife.

Ironic, then, that many people feel the city of Charlotte not only doesn't help these businesses -- which help attract a younger, creative, and often spend-happy demographic group -- but seems to go out of its way to make things difficult for such places to exist at all (see the so-called "rave ordinance" of a couple years back).

"In terms of nightclubs and restaurants, I don't know of a thing (that the city does to help the owners of creative businesses)," says Andy Kastanas, a DJ and popular nightlife entrepreneur. "Navigating building codes, ordinances and regulations is left up to the owners. Creating nightlife culture in Charlotte is purely a grassroots effort. I don't think the city knows how to help."

Kastanas admits, however, it doesn't seem so much mean-spirited as it does an error of omission. "They're an advocate for corporations, but don't seem to be interested in "helping' the small business here."

"The city wants to have its cake and eat it too," says Matt Bolick, who is the music director for the Liquid Lounge chain of nightclubs. "For years, the city leaders wanted to 'revive' uptown nightlife. Now that we have it, restrictions have been put in place as to what hours these businesses can run. I think the city doesn't understand that when you expand to be a city with quality entertainment, you get big city problems as well. I constantly feel as though big brother's saying, "Do what you want, but only the way we want it.' The "arts,' as it were, is another topic altogether. Freedom of expression is a big "no, no' in this world of big banking that we've created for ourselves."

Kastanas concurs. "It's neither a help nor a hindrance," he says. "I don't think they understand the nightclub business, and it's easier to condemn it than to advocate the type of entertainment that nightclubs offer."

"There's definitely a misconception about electronic music in Charlotte," says Andre Araiz of Third Eye Promotions, a company that has helped bring Jimmy Van M and several other big-name DJs to town over the last couple of years. "I think the problem stems from the lack of understanding of dance music itself. There are so many different genres and subgenres of music with each of them pulling its own crowd and each having its own way of thinking as a collective. When someone thinks DJ, or dance music, many think "rave' as well. That's not always the case, although I completely understand why people see it that way. There is a young crowd -- too young, sometimes -- that is out late at night and they bring attention to themselves because of the lack of personal responsibility for themselves. That's an issue that the city of Charlotte has been struggling with for some time. I for one agree with the late night curfew the city has mandated for under-age kids. However, I strongly oppose adults being given that curfew."

Another entertainment entrepreneur, Noah Lazes of locally based Ark Management, offers a similar opinion. Lazes owns and operates clubs in Miami and Indianapolis and is actively pursuing the development of an outdoor amphitheater and entertainment district near the Greenville neighborhood in downtown Charlotte.

"In Charlotte you're still allowed to admit patrons under the age of 21, which is very liberal compared to the rest of the country. The truth is, that's where you have the biggest issue -- underage drinking."

Lazes, who also owned Fat Tuesdays in Charlotte long ago, is, however, quick to point out that most every city has its own quirks. "Los Angeles has the same time constraints we have here (closing at 2am), and they're very strict about enforcing that law." He adds, "In Miami and Indianapolis there are plenty of issues we deal with that we never deal with in other cities."

According to Araiz, almost 70 percent of their audience comes from other cities. "They drive the distance from Atlanta, DC, South Carolina, even Tennessee. Charlotte itself is still young. To us that poses a challenge, yet also an opportunity. A challenge because the city itself poses many obstacles, at times due to ignorance of the industry itself, as well as much of the crowd, who are only aware of the big names, which is less than a handful of DJs. It's an opportunity because that means growth is inevitable as long as we unanimously share patience. It's nothing but exciting to be a part of that growth rather than complain about what is lacking. Instead of whining about what the city isn't doing, we're accepting our responsibility in letting the city know that dance music is not all about "raves' and young kids causing trouble."

So what does the city do to help those who might want to start a downtown business or help the businesses already in existence? To answer that question, we talked to Tim Newman, president of Charlotte Center City Partners.

"All they need to do is write or e-mail me (tnewman@charlottecentercity.org) with any proposal," says Newman. "If the operator gets a location and a license, they're good to go. We're happy to serve as the communications clearinghouse in that process.

"We work with developers regularly to bring new and creative places into the Center City. Recent examples are the Spa and retail at Hearst Plaza and the restaurants at The Green. Based on Richard Florida's book, we have some good indicators on the creative class and I think we need to continue to get the word out nationally about Charlotte's potential. To that end, I'm attending two national conferences where we'll be promoting the city as a great business location, noting creative class statistics."

Matt Bolick, for one, thinks the city ought to try and develop a working relationship with local creative businessmen, possibly even crossing over into the realm of city-sponsored public entertainment, now populated mostly by cover bands and the current radio flavor of the moment.

"I will tell you that without indie or college radio, our music scene is strangled into a choke-hold of mediocrity by the "mainstream,' "rock' and "alternative' radio stations we live with. The city might want to actually confer with people who are "in the business' when they plan large events. Quality entertainment where the city is considered is a farce."

All the club owners and promoters interviewed seemed to agree that the city as a whole wasn't so much meddling in their affairs as ignoring them. Which, to hear some speak, might be the best we can ask for now.

"At the moment it's not too hard," says Kastanas of operating in downtown Charlotte. "However, we are aware that that climate could change at any moment."

Lynn Farris contributed to this article.

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